The Trial of the Juntas, Argentina’s reckoning with years of murderous military dictatorship, set a precedent for the nation and the world: It remains the only instance of a public judicial system trying its own country’s former government on such a scale.
Santiago Mitre’s new drama, competing in Venice, examines the landmark case from the perspective of its lead prosecutor, casting the story as that of a bureaucrat rising to a historic moment.
The Bottom Line
A measured portrait of a courageous legal eagle.
“Inspired by actual events,” the screenplay by Mitre and Mariano Llinás is, like its hero, more methodical than electrifying. Dialing down his natural charisma, Argentine star Ricardo Darín, of the international hit The Secret in Their Eyes and Mitre’s The Summit, delivers a performance of restraint and intense focus as Julio Strassera, a government attorney who masks his very real sense of panic with professional doggedness. Like Mitre’s Paulina, the feature revolves around a tightly contained protagonist facing brutal realities. For the title character of the 2015 drama, the atrocity, lies and politics are specific and personal; for the central figure in Argentina, 1985, the violence and horror he must address have poisoned the atmosphere of an entire country.
The film’s greatest resonance will naturally be with Argentine audiences who know firsthand the legacy of the juntas’ so-called dirty war against perceived subversives. For a wider viewership, Argentina, 1985 is an instructive and thoughtful depiction of what it takes to hold tyrants accountable within the perimeters of a legal system, the persistence and paperwork and fearlessness required to achieve justice.
Eschewing a genre template that calls for grandstanding scenes, Mitre instead doles out quiet revelations. With DP Javier Juliá and composer Pedro Osuna, the helmer builds a mood of deep-in-the-bones unease, if not always a sense of dramatic urgency. The balance between detail and momentum can at times be off, and the helmer doesn’t entirely avoid generic tropes of the legal drama. But he conveys the enormity of the undertaking at the film’s center — the first major war crimes trial since Nuremberg — and it’s felt in every moment of Darín’s compelling portrayal.
A few title cards set up the background before the action launches into Strassera’s involvement in the case, which would try nine military commanders, three of them former presidents, for crimes against humanity. The 1983 election of President Alfonsín ended seven years of dictatorship, and he decreed that the juntas’ chiefs stand accused of the kidnapping, torture, murder and disappearance of tens of thousands of Argentine citizens. Even so, Strassera doesn’t believe a civil trial will happen until the weighty assignment lands on his desk. Then he wonders if he’s being set up as a patsy in a show trial.
The way Strassera’s rational anxieties sometimes spill into paranoia offers a window into the ways the reign of terror has infected a society. Besides fearing that he’s being used by the new administration, he fears for the safety of his wife, Silvia (Alejandra Flechner), and their children — and with good reason, given the barrage of death threats they receive. To an exasperated Silvia’s disbelief, Strassera suspects that the new boyfriend of their daughter, Veronica (Gina Mastronicola), is an undercover agent trying to get to him. There’s a comic edge to the way he enlists his young teenage son, Javier, to spy on his sibling. It’s work for which the boy, well played by Santiago Armas Estevarena, has an affinity, and he’ll put that knack to use again, to humorous effect.
Cinematographer Juliá captures Buenos Aires’ bustle, the imposing scale of the government buildings where much of the action unfolds in cramped offices. The unflashy attention to period details by production designer Micaela Saiegh and costume designer Mónica Toschi serves the story well, never distracting from Strassera and the work at hand.
As to why Strassera is nicknamed Loco (Crazy) by friends as well as foes like smug public defender Basile (Héctor Díaz), there’s no indication until, well into the trial, he makes some gutsy rude gestures at the defendants. With his pomaded hair and neat-as-a-pin jacket and tie — even at home, he’s rarely seen in shirtsleeves — Strassera is a nose-to-the-grindstone type. Trying to interpret mixed signals from Alfonsín’s government, with its talk of the wrongdoings of “alleged victims,” and the seeming support of the court of appeals (Carlos Portaluppi plays the panel’s even-keeled leader), he’s consumed with the task before him, fretting and planning and smoking, finding solace in classical music.
That he declined to help the friends and family of political prisoners and desaparecidos when, during the dictatorship, they sought legal action, is one of the gray areas the film acknowledges, even as it celebrates his everyman heroics. The implication is that Strassera’s silence during the dirty war hardly makes him unique, though he was in a better position than many to take action.
“History,” he tells his ailing friend and mentor Alberto (a moving turn by Norman Briski), “was not made by guys like me” — laying forth, quite clearly, the thesis that the film sets out to disprove. With just five months to gather evidence, he needs to build a team, and seeks the advice of another friend, Carlos Somigliana (Claudio Da Passano, excellent), a theater director with a background in the law. Their brainstorming session turns into a droll roll call of their peers as they sort out the deceased from the living and differentiate between the fascists and the super fascists.
Strassera is assigned a deputy prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani), who wisely points out that filling the team with human rights lawyers — the sort easily written off as communists by those inclined to do so — might not be the best strategy for winning hearts and minds. After a comical (if familiar) interview montage, the young lawyers and students who join the case recede into the background, used mainly as shorthand for the volume of research needed and the case’s forward motion. They spread out across the country to gather testimony — their legwork reminiscent of the journalists’ efforts in Spotlight, but viewed only glancingly and from a distance.
Moreno Ocampo is likewise underdeveloped except as a foil to Strassera who helps shape the trajectory of the legal team’s work. As the scion of a well-to-do military family, he has a direct link to the sentiments of the ruling class, and his mother (Susana Pampín), in particular, serves as a barometer of that mood regarding the trial. When the mood changes, after the heartrending testimony of Adriana Calvo de Laborde (Laura Paredes), who was pregnant when the junta kidnapped her, the impact is blunted by some of the screenplay’s flattest dialogue.
The heart of the movie is the trial itself, in which Strassera presents 709 cases. His eight-minute closing statement is the low-key showstopper. There’s no courtroom strutting, not even a raised voice. From his seat, the government employee affirms the torment inflicted on thousands of his fellow citizens, long gaslighted, and Argentina, 1985 reminds us that the unfettered truth is strong medicine.